BARRY MAITLAND The Russian Wife. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
The fourteenth instalment of Barry Maitland’s groundbreaking Brock and Kolla crime series is also the last.
Scottish-born, English-raised and, since 1984, Australian-based, Barry Maitland published the first Brock and Kolla novel, The Marx Sisters, in 1994. On his website he tells the story of the conception of the series following the 1989 Newcastle earthquake just a few years after he had arrived from the UK to become head of the architecture school at Newcastle University. The earthquake caused the family home to cave in, nearly killing his wife Margaret in the process. In what he describes as a reaction to the chaos around them at the time, he began to think of the plot for a murder mystery.
Despite the very Australian setting of the original idea, the books are all set in London, and were among the earliest novels to create a close male and female police team, cleverly exploring the dynamics of having an older, experienced male cop as the mentor and champion of an upcoming, dynamic young female with heaps of potential. Luckily, this dynamic avoided the all too simplistic romantic clichés and kept the personal angst to that of good friends and colleagues.
Each book in the series combines two particular elements – a setting concentrating on a special building or area of particular architectural significance, and a theme based around an obsessive interest of one or more of the characters. These elements are combined within a police procedural structure, which relies heavily on the relationships within the investigating team and the personality traits of the two lead characters, and less on strict police procedural elements.
Over the 14 books of the series this has created an unusual dynamic of deep respect between flawed people who have forged unlikely working relationships and friendships, as well as a great sense of place, all in an understated, reserved and, in The Russian Wife in particular, a reflective and unsettled sort of way.
The plot of The Russian Wife might be best appreciated if you’ve got some of the background from at least the last couple of novels – my review of The Raven’s Eye (2013), the twelfth instalment, can give you a bit more detail – but it starts out with Brock, recently reinstated as a DCI, in the Fraud division (not his natural home), and Kolla leading one of the Met Police’s specialist murder investigation teams. They and another old colleague, Bren, have developed a habit of meeting up regularly for a meal and a catch-up. A chance remark by Brock at the latest of these gatherings gives Kolla something to think about in her most recent case – a violent, seemingly impossible and very bloody murder – that leads her to uncover some startling coincidences in the deaths of a series of men with reports of domestic violence in their histories. Meanwhile Brock has found himself on the trail of international art fraud after an odd threat leads to the death of Nadya Babington, the Russian wife of Julian, a prominent corporate lawyer and art collector.
Following the pattern of these novels, the obvious obsession here is the world of art collection, and the money and machinations that go hand in hand with it. (Anyone who has ever seen the BBC TV show Fake or Fortune? will have an inkling of just how complex the world of art fraud has become.)
He turned on lights and Brock saw a low-ceilinged room lined with racks of paintings and drawings. Babington led the way in. ‘This is the bulk of the works collected by my father, together with their provenance documents in that cabinet over there. But among them is the thing that inspired my father’s obsession and which now outshines them all. During the First World War, his father, my grandfather, was an officer in the British Army on the Western Front in France, and in 1917 he visited Paris while on leave. There he passed the window of an art dealer in which was displayed a painting that struck his fancy. He went in and bought it for five hundred francs, about twenty-five British pounds. Here it is …’ …
Brock stared at it astonished. ‘But I’ve seen this before. It’s in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.’
The second obsession is domestic violence and vigilantism. Kolla’s case has quickly spiralled into a potentially explosive situation, which she discusses with the only member of her team who knows of her suspicions:
‘So what’s your feeling, Judy?’
‘If she was involved in the deaths of those bastards, then personally I’d give her a medal. But we’re Homicide, aren’t we?’
The architectural setting of note is an ancient church in the marshlands of Kent, a place that drew the attention of Nadya Babington, and it becomes a focal point for much of that investigation:
Though he was forced to go slowly on the narrow winding lane, it wasn’t long before he made out the dark stump of St Chad’s tower against the lowering sky. The church was a squat structure of rubble stone, surrounded by a churchyard of tilted gravestones. The bleak landscape and graveyard reminded him of a novel. What was it? Then he remembered – in Great Expectations the boy Pip was grabbed in just such an isolated Kentish graveyard by Abel Magwitch, a convict who had escaped from one of the prison hulks moored nearby in the Thames Estuary. This was Dickens country after all; he’d lived in Rochester, not far away.
Maitland is able to keep the dual plotlines in this story in full focus by rapidly switching viewpoints across chapters, with twists or surprises timed to avoid overload. This is never confusing, using pace and plenty of points of interest to keep the reader engaged. Fans of this series will also be pleased to see the traditional mid-book twist is there, leading to a nicely executed closure on everything, including some of the lingering personal issues that have been pulsating away for many books now.
It’s particularly worth noting that Brock and Kolla have been allowed to age over the course of the series. Kolla has gone from the energetic offsider to a seasoned, experienced cop, and Brock has definitely moved to the role of elder statesman. There’s also space provided for reflection and retrospection, not surprisingly as the media release that came with The Russian Wife says this is the final instalment. The series will be much missed.
Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.
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